by Christina Warden, Director of Policy and Programs, Women Employed
In June, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions. It is an infuriating decision that threatens to put a chill on decades of progress towards racial and gender equity in higher education.
As we head back into the school year, what does this mean, and what can policymakers and institutions of higher learning do to ensure we don’t lose important ground?
As it turns out, plenty! But it will require resolve, as well as boldness.
The truth is, the Supreme Court’s decision is relatively narrow. Race can no longer be explicitly considered in college admissions. And while it is an important factor, admissions are only one component of advancing racial equity in higher education. Affordability and retention are equally important in breaking down barriers to college access and completion, and there are major strides to be made in both areas.
College affordability is a huge barrier for many Black, Brown, and female students. In Illinois, the Monetary Award Program (MAP) provides need-based grants to low-income students, and the program is especially critical for first-generation students, students of color, and women. Thousands of Illinois working students — 56 percent of whom are first-generation students and 63 of whom are women — rely on MAP grants. More than half of Illinois’ Black and Latina/o/x undergraduates receive a MAP grant.
But MAP has been chronically underfunded, and MAP grants still don’t fully cover costs. For more than a decade, Women Employed has been a leading advocate for MAP grants, and we’ve helped win $300 million in additional funding since fiscal year 2019, but there’s still more to be done before the program is fully funded.
Retention is another critical area of opportunity. Institutional leaders must commit to creating and funding programs that support students of color. We can look to many of our Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) for examples of what works. By delivering programs that provide academic, cocurricular, and supports tailored to Black and Brown students and the unique barriers they experience as a result of systems created by white-supremacy culture, these institutions create a sense of belonging, and of inclusion among students of color. That, paired with culturally sensitive faculty and staff, helps these students feel like they fit, like they’re not the exception, and research shows these programs are effective at retaining students of color.
Illinois has over 30 Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), but far too many of them are chronically under-resourced. So equitable funding for colleges is also a critical need. Our leaders and policymakers must commit to funding MSIs and other institutions that serve diverse student populations — and the leaders at those institutions must then commit to putting dollars towards programs that will support their students of color and help improve their retention.
For many years, Women Employed has been a strong advocate for racial equity in higher education. Not only are we advocating for MAP grants, but we are also educating borrowers on resources to manage student loan debt. We’re advising the state on equitable funding strategies for Illinois’ colleges and universities. We’ve released two briefs on racial equity in higher education (Advancing Racial Equity in Higher Education, and Lessons from the States), and a post on the importance of Minority Serving Institutions. Through our Accelerating Student Progress and Improving Racial Equity (ASPIRE) Project, we are working with ten community colleges to improve developmental education in Illinois — a major historic stumbling block for many Black and Brown students trying to earn their degrees. We also sit on numerous commissions and advisory groups working to improve equity in higher education in Illinois.
We know that racial equity in higher education is about more than admissions. And while the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision is alarming, there are so many things we can still do to ensure more students of color can access higher education and complete their degrees and certificates. So, as we fight this decision, let’s also roll up our sleeves and get to work.
For more on what colleges can still do to ensure diversity in admissions, check out this resource from our friends at the Center for Race and Equity: https://uscrec.info/affirmativereactionmaterials